A back-country skier is brave, reverent, loyal, sturdy, agile, adventuresome—and definitely a bit daring. It also helps if he is an expert: one does not snowplow through deep powder. As Canada's Nancy Greene, 1968 Olympic gold and silver medalist, puts it, "This country is the greatest if you are strong and don't worry about how you look. It is not for pretty skiers."
Exactly. The western Canadian wilderness is almost the last of the big-time ski horizons, a land of rugged peaks and glaciers, endless slopes and a smothering abundance of the deepest dry snow. The region is five times the size of Europe's Alps, wide as the span from Washington to Montana, running almost to Alaska in depth and embracing both the Coastal Mountains and the Canadian Rockies. The back country is practically all of British Columbia, plus a border strip of Alberta; it could swallow up—not bothering to subtract snowbunnies—every skier in the world.
One jumps into Canada through a series of resorts that half-circle the southern rim of the back country—from Whistler Mountain near Vancouver to Banff near Calgary and up the Continental Divide to Valemount near Jasper. Some are old, established spots, like Rossland and Banff, with comfortable hotels, chair lifts, even a beginner's slope or two. But just a few miles inland the ski land is untamed. Here are the peaks and glaciers, ridges, chutes, cornices and bowls full of powder that have never been skied—not just on a given day, not merely since it snowed last, but not ever.
Canada's wilderness skiing came on with the age of the helicopter; the era was born in 1955 when a young Austrian mountain guide named Hans Gmoser started "Canadian Mountain Holidays." By 1965 Gmoser was whirling skiers into the untracked Bugaboo Mountains in the Purcell Range (SI, March 30, 1970). Since then, the Bugaboo slopes have become so famous that skiers arrive from around the world to be airlifted to the more than 100 runs Gmoser has spotted. The season goes from Dec. 26 to May 20 by the week and prices for an all-inclusive, seven-day package with transportation to and from Calgary range from $500 to $585.
And now Gmoser has discovered newer and even bigger back country: about 180 miles to the north, near Jasper and Mt. Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, he has come upon the Cariboos, a virgin territory where more than 600 inches of powder snow fall each season. With jet-assisted copters, he can drop his nine-man groups of skiers anywhere within a 600-square-mile area of fresh terrain. Gmoser guarantees at least 100,000 vertical feet of downhill runs in one week, for those who are up to it, and offers everything from the glaciers of 11,750-foot Mt. Sir Wilfred Laurier to the slightly more gentle powdery valleys at 4,000 feet.
The gateway to the Cariboos lies from Calgary to Banff and along the picturesque Icefield Highway, which Canada insists is now kept open all winter (that is, providing one drives it in the daytime only). Skiers are lodged at the Sarak Motel in Valemount, east of Jasper, and a seven-day Cariboo ski package during the Feb. 19-through-April 22 season is set at $700.
Not quite as fearful as the Cariboos or Bugaboos but just as appealing in its way is a new area in the 9,500-foot Monashee Mountains that claims—with certain evident justification—to have better powder than anyplace in the world, Utah's famous Alta included. This is not just plain powder, as skiers say; more than 700 inches of fluffy snow fall there each season, and during every run one is submerged in the stuff—so much snow, in fact, that there are very few trees around, even in the valleys. For pioneers who want to be among the first to sample this experience, two sessions of copter skiing are set for this season, one Feb. 12 through 19 and a second "exploration" trip from May 13 through 20. Skiers will stay at MacGregor Motel in Revelstoke on Highway 1, east of Banff, and the seven-day all-inclusive price is $700.
Even with all this stress on the super, western Canadian skiing also has its touches of glamour and comfort. One of the country's more charming attractions is the famous old Banff Springs Hotel on the edge of skiing's outlands. The 600-room palace, all turrets and Scottish influence, offers views of the Bow River and the pine forests of the Rockies stretching on to infinity.
Banff itself is the center of a skiing cluster; about 35 miles northwest is Lake Louise with its Temple-Whitehorn double mountain. Three miles east of Banff is Mt. Norquay, which Canadians coolly call their "challenge mountain," and 10 miles southwest, nestled in a high bowl, is Sunshine Valley.
But the jewel of the big back country is Whistler Mountain, rising on the edge of purest wilderness 70 miles north of Vancouver. Natives claim it has something for everybody: three chair lifts, a gondola, five lodges and inns, deep powder bowls at the top and trails snaking through forests farther down. And out beyond, for $50 a day for three glaciers or $7.50 a copter ride (to the Whistler peak), one may ski the open land. So far, 30 back-country glaciers have been skied for the first time and—from the air—the eager Canadians have located 100 more still untraveled.